Conflicts

Sermon 6 September 2020

St Chad’s

Conflicts

In my living room I have three shelves full of Christian books. And above my desk where I write sermons there are two more shelves. Why on earth would I need so many books?

In our readings from Paul’s letter to the Romans, we have just heard the whole of the Jesus’ message summed up in one or two pithy sentences.

 ‘The commandments… are summed up in this word, ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’ Love does no wrong to a neighbour; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.’

Why then are there so many details added by the church throughout the ages?

Anything we as Christians are doing or proposing to do needs to be set along this standard of love – Is this action truly loving? Or am I more concerned about details of the law, which might have originally been meant out of love, but come with a hefty side-serving of judgment or smugness?

It’s for these occasions that Jesus urged his followers to take the log out of their own eye before attending to the speck in someone else’s.

Unfortunately conflict in society goes back to the beginning of time, and was certainly a theme in many of the Old Testament teachings.

This is why Jesus’ words are so radical for his time! Jews had been struggling to follow the law, the ten commandments, since Moses brought the tablets down from the mountain. Some had added more and more details and nuances and interpretations to the point where compliance was for its own sake, not for the sake of love. In Jesus’ day this group was represented by the Pharisees. Jesus

reserved his most sarcastic criticism for them – he accused them of being so legalistic about tithing that they even gave a tenth of the mint and cumin herbs in their garden, but didn’t follow the big picture – love everyone.

Our reading from Matthew’s gospel addresses situations where there is conflict between members of the church. The word used in the Greek is adelphos, which is brothers, or fellow disciples, so here Jesus is talking about a situation that arises within the worship community, between people who are committed to the Way. Some versions have the word ‘church’, but it’s really closer, more intimate than that.

It’s not really referring to conflicts between different denominations, though as members of a wide Christian community we should all strive to live peacefully with one another.

Jesus is talking abut the times when someone close to you offends you. Maybe you’ve been put on a roster on a day when you have specifically asked not to. Or maybe there has been a misunderstanding about whether an Alpha meeting you have invited your boarder to was offering a full dinner, or just a light tea. This really happened to me.

You know what I mean – wherever where are people there can be conflict.

Jesus tells us how to deal with it – go and talk to the person privately. Don’t tell everyone else, don’t go behind their back, just have a loving conversation. Who knows – this might just resolve the issue. Maybe both of you had got hold of the wrong end of the stick, and it can all be sorted out easily.

Our current society seems to thrive on drama – just see how popular Reality TV is, especially where people are arguing. One of my least favourites is Below Decks, where the crew of swanky yachts do more stirring and conflict-growing than ever they do sailing.

But the private conversation is the Jesus way.

How about when this gets you nowhere? Take a couple of others with you, and try again. This is a throw-back to the Old Testament way of justice, where witnesses help to establish the truth. Maybe your witnesses will have some hard words for you – they might be able to point out where the problem really lies, and a humble hearer will listen and make amends.

But, oh dear, there is still a problem. Step three. Take it to the whole assembly. This is inviting a whole group of people, whose peace is marred by undercurrents, to help sort out the problem.

Have you ever been in a church congregation where there is something going on, people are whispering in corners, and the atmosphere is so thick you could cut it with a communion wafer, but no one is talking out loud and it feels really tense? I was in a church once where two members of the worship team were having an affair, and it caused a lot of problems. Maybe a solution won’t be found to a problem by having everyone give their opinion, but at least it’s out in the open, and the problem can be ring-fenced – only the difficulty at hand is to be addressed, and it’s not a free-for-all for every grumble you have had going back the last twenty years!

But – maybe we need step 4. Maybe the issue has not been solved, maybe those found to be at fault by the assembly have not repented and tuned back to the right path. What then?

This is where Jesus starts to sound very strict. ‘Let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax-collector’, he says. 2000 years ago the very word Gentile meant Outsider, not people who were to inherit God’s kingdom, which was for the Jews. Tax- collectors were even worse – agents for the hated Romans, taking not only the tax Rome sucked out of the people, but skimming off more for their personal use.

Remember though that Matthew himself was a tax collector before he answered Jesus’ call.

Ooh, maybe Jesus is not telling his people, and us, to reject those ones completely, who refuse to toe the line. How did Jesus actually treat Gentiles and tax collectors? He loved them. He came when the Roman centurion asked him to heal his servant. He ate a meal with tax collectors.

This is a bit challenging isn’t it? What was looking like an escalating scale of more and more strict treatment of the bad guy, is turned upside down by Jesus’ loving example!

How then should we react when situations like this arise? We can come back to the other reading – ‘Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.’

Love triumphs over everything. We may need to distance ourselves from hurtful and dangerous behaviour, but we must never stop loving. If every Christian in the world concentrated on truly loving every other person, what a wonderful world it would be! People who are not yet Christians would be drawn to that amazing power of love, and we would all live in freedom and in God’s truth.

This week, in your prayer time, ask God to show you someone you may not have succeeded at showering God’s love upon, and let God lift away the hurts, and set you free.

Burning Bushes

Sermon Aug 30

Burning bushes

Matthew 16:21-28

Exodus 3:1-12

The trouble with being a Christian is that we have no excuse to sit back waiting for someone else to do everything. Just when we think, oh, I’m too old, or too scared, we see great examples from scripture of how ordinary people are called into the wonderful but let’s face it not easy life of being a disciple.

First, let’s look at Moses. The story of the Burning Bush is a Sunday school classic, and it certainly makes a great image. What do we know about Moses? First, he was not a perfect person. He left Egypt in a hurry after killing someone! This is quite extreme, but God used him anyway. Second, he was not a young man. When he left Egypt he was already 40, and spent another forty years working with his father-in-law and keeping his head down. This makes him 80! That’s great for us, because quite a few of us are around that age. That’s two potential difficulties shot down.

What else do we know about Moses? He was observant and curious. His noticing of things is why he killed the Egyptian in the first place. He saw an injustice and blundered in to try and right it. Now, out in the wilderness where he had been looking for the sheep for years, he saw something new! Imagine if you are one of the farmers on Country Calendar, and you are mustering your sheep from a block which you know like the back of your hand, and which you could probably ride blindfold, when suddenly you notice smoke! Fire – wonder how that started? You would think, and go closer to see if it needs putting out. But this bush is doing something weird – it’s not being burnt up! Time for a puzzled, closer look.

Well, God really knew how to get Moses’ attention.

Have you had burning bush moments in your life? Times when something so odd happened that it really caught your attention? When you had to stop everything, put aside all your pre-conceived ideas and just open yourself to wonder?

Perhaps in our busy lives we have not had time to stop and notice. That’s one of the, albeit few, blessings of the time of lockdown- it gave us a chance to stop what we were doing and just open ourselves up to what God was doing around us.

Maybe this is another blessing of getting older too, of retiring from the hustle and bustle of going out to work, the days of getting children fed and off to school are long in the past, and you have time to contemplate.

Now, let’s see what happened next with Moses and the bush.

Suddenly a voice came out of it, as if it wasn’t odd enough already! God talks to Moses! Moses hid his face. I bet he did, he was probably shaking in his bare feet.

God tells Moses what he has to do, and what I love about the dialogues that we hear between Moses and God is that they talk together, back and forth, like friends, not like a mighty God booming from the sky, and a quivering wreck stammering back in fear. Some fire and brimstone preachers of the past, and of our local street corner, would paint a picture of God that is scary and unapproachable, but right from the early books of the Bible, we see a God we can talk to, who will answer our questions. Don’t be afraid to talk to God about anything at all!

God has a task for Moses, but Moses wants to know how he will be able to manage it. I’ll be with you, God says. Then again we have the phrase, ‘but Moses said to God.’

I think this phrase comes quite a few times!

Ok then says Moses, but he again needs clarification. Who shall I say is calling? Or, what shall I tell them your name is?

The name that God gives Moses is I AM, in English. It’s based on the verb ‘to be’ in Hebrew. It’s really a sort of way of God saying, I am existence, I am the beginning of everything, – just as it is spelled out in the beginning of John’s Gospel.

God is telling Moses that the sheer power of existence will go with him into Egypt to liberate the people!

Moses had no further objections – how could he, knowing that God would go with him?

When God calls us forward to do something, we too can walk out in confidence, knowing that God who made the universe and beyond is with us.

Come forward a few centuries, and let’s see what happens when Jesus tells the

disciples what’s in store for their future too.

Instead of coming with a mighty army to defeat the rulers, Jesus tells the disciples that he will go to Jerusalem to suffer, and even to die! Peter doesn’t seem to hear the next bit, to be raised again, and he objects greatly to the picture Jesus paints! Jesus rebukes him strongly, Get thee behind me Satan! ouch!

Remember, Jesus has recently told Peter that he is the rock on which God will build the church. The rock is looking a bit crumbly now!

Jesus talks of a world tuned upside down – deny yourselves, follow me.

We live in a society where the wealthy own more and more of the resources, and there seems to be a drive to get richer, to get more stuff, get more well-known.

Jesus is showing us that his way is different, it is upside down from that. To follow Christ we are all called to put aside those worldly ambitions, and humble ourselves.

I look around here and I see a group of people who do just that. I want to encourage you that you are following Christ when you care for others, when you help the foodbank, when you have a kind word for someone you meet.

You may not be able to march in the streets for social justice, or to lead groups of people out of slavery, but you can still further the kingdom of God in everything you do, knowing that the power of God, of the very foundation of our being is with you. That is why prayer never has a use by date, or a best before, or a retirement age. Keep on being the warriors in prayer that you are, and you find your life.

The woman from outside

The woman from outside.

Rom 11: 1-2a, 29-32

Mat 15:21-28

This story we have just heard sounds a bit shocking, doesn’t it? In our times we have seen other races persecuted just because they are a different colour, and the Black Lives Matter movement is sweeping the world. This story makes Jesus look like a bit of a racist really. It seems odd to say that. But hang on, we know the character of Jesus. We know about His great love for everyone. What is going on here?

We need to look at the first purpose of Jesus coming to the earth. It was to fulfil the promise that God had made to the Jews. They were called the chosen people for a reason. They had been awaiting the anointed one, the Messiah, for many hundreds, even thousands of years. Jesus’ first mission on earth was to fulfil that promise, to come and be the anointed one for the Jews. The title of the one the Jews were waiting for so longingly was ‘Son of David’. And, surprisingly, this is what the Canaanite woman calls him! She’s not a Jew, she’s not even living in Jewish territory. This story takes place on the coast some way north of Israel, and woman was from even further north. Some versions call her the Syro-Phoenician woman. Phoenicians lived on the coast, but the Syro bit refers to Syria, which is still further north.

So here was a woman from outside, claiming Jesus’s ministry to the world outside the Jewish world, for herself and her daughter. This is an example of the future ministry of Jesus breaking in on the first ministry. Her faith tells her that Jesus is on earth not just for the Jews but for everyone, so she confidently calls him Son of David, and asks for healing for her daughter. She acknowledges the Jewish call as the first one, by calling him Son of David, but it is her confidence in his wider mission that seems to take Jesus by surprise.

He challenges her again, and seems to be not only a bit racist but even rude. It isn’t right, says Jesus, to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.

Ouch! Gentle Jesus meek and mild has disappeared again. It was only a myth anyway.

But the Canaanite woman isn’t offended at being compared to a dog. Jewish people referred to Gentiles as dogs commonly. It wasn’t polite, but it was normal. She comes back with one of the best rejoinders in the gospels – even the dogs get to eat the scraps from under the table!

Sometimes at cafe church we have some doggy visitors. We are not supposed to feed them from the table – the food is not for them. But if bits fall on the floor they don’t last long! This is probably why dogs love small children – there are always bits for them to gather up.

This lady was content with the crumbs. She didn’t expect more. But she confidently claimed that much, knowing that even a crumb of healing, of love, of teaching from Jesus would be enough for her need, to see her daughter healed.

Jesus is amazed at her faith. We have seen this reaction elsewhere – in a previous chapter there is a Roman centurion who also shows this faith – another Gentile. We can see, in the midst of Matthew’s gospel, which was written for a Jewish audience, the future ministry of Jesus, and the life of the church being foreshadowed. Both these Gentiles were commended for their faith – the challenge is to the Jewish people – Will you also show this faith? Will you acknowledge that the one you have been awaiting for so long is here now?

Well, some Jewish people did trust Jesus, but others are still waiting, and it seems sad to me that they didn’t recognise him when he stood among them.

What can this mean for us?

Where do we see faith breaking out where we least expect it?

I remember going to a service in Wellington cathedral to install Bishop Justin. During the cup of tea afterward, I noticed a man who didn’t look like most of the others there– instead of being clergy, or nicely turned out cathedral people in their best clothes, instead of being let’s face it white, he was Maori, dreadlocks, scruffy, with prison tattoos on his hands. Interesting character, I thought, and went over to talk to him. He knew Bishop Justin quite well from a ministry Justin had had to the prison, and he was wearing a wooden cross with a red bead on it. Those of you who have been to Cursillo will recognise this, as I did. He had done the in-prison Cursillo programme, which is called Te Ara Pono.

This man didn’t look like everyone else there at first glance, but he had the identifying mark of a Christian – I don’t mean the cross around his neck, but the transformed, faith- affirming life that showed that he too was a follower of Christ.

The church has become an institution in many parts of the world, connected with colonialism and the British way. It can look very different from the city that has evolved around it. Just this week, a church choir in the UK has been disbanded because it doesn’t represent the make-up of the community it is based in. Someone has decided that because of the racial grouping it is elitist.

The story we have just heard tells us that any sort of discrimination is not relevant to the kingdom of heaven. Yes, Jesus’s mission was first to the Jews, but then to the rest of the world. The followers of Jesus in the first century took the church far and wide, with the message heard by people in all their own languages at the outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.

We cannot look at a group of people and say, they’re too brown, too white, too green for that matter, to fit into a picture of what the kingdom of heaven can look like. The Canaanite woman knew that it was for her and her daughter. Here at St Ambrose we know that God’s love is for everyone, no matter what walk of life.

I hope the people who want to worship God by singing in the choir in the UK can continue to do so, regardless of their colour or background. I hope those who don’t feel they can belong to that choir because it’s too something can start their own choir, and instead of being one or the other, they can have many different ways of worshipping God.

Dear friends, our challenge this week is carry on doing what we already do well here – reaching out to everyone with God’s love, and the good news of the Kingdom of Heaven!

What can God bless?

Sermon Aug 2

What can God bless?

Romans 9:1-5

Matthew 14:13-21

The story of the feeding of the five thousand is a familiar one. So let’s see what we can find out about it that might not be so obvious. When did it happen? Our passage starts with ‘after this.’ After what? Just before this, Jesus has heard that his cousin John the Baptist has been killed by the evil King Herod. John had preached in the wilderness that Jesus was coming soon, and John had baptised him in the river Jordan. It would have been a hard time for Jesus, so he went away into a quiet place, to have some time to himself, maybe to think about and mourn his cousin.

But He couldn’t even find that little bit of peace. The crowds found him, followed him, and filled his quiet place.

Jesus reacted in a way that many of us would not – instead of saying, like the old film star, ‘I want to be alone’, He did what he was sent here to do- he cured the sick, and ministered to the people. He had compassion for them.

He had taken a little time for himself, but when life came hurtling back at him, he was ready to step up to the plate.

It’s like that in Christian ministry too isn’t it? We can be having a really bad day, need some time to ourself after a particularly harrowing morning, and someone turns up for the food bank, or calls, and really needs our attention and our love. This is where arrow prayers are a God-send, literally. They are a quick prayer sent straight up, God, help me now! That’s all they need to be. An acknowledgement that we need God’s help, that whatever we are being asked for, we cannot do it out of our own strength, because we haven’t got any left. It’s not a bad thing to admit our lack, our weakness I these situations. This is a God-space. Where we are not enough God is always enough.

As the day with Jesus and the crowd drew towards evening, some of the disciples began to worry about the crowd. ‘They’ve got no food with them, they all came out in a hurry, desperate to see Jesus, and now they’ll be getting hungry.’

When people hang out around Jesus, they see the needs of other people. The disciples reacted with compassion, with practical care. Send them away, they said, so they can get food. They were not wanting the people to go away because they were sick of them or because they thought Jesus needed a break. It was out of care for people who needed a feed.

Jesus had another idea. He asked the disciples to feed them.

Can you imagine being a disciple and being told to feed 5000 plus people? Maybe for a minute you would think that Jesus was crazy to suggest it, or away with the fairies. Bring what you have, he said.

This is an echo of the story of Elijah and the widow. She was facing having to sell her only son into slavery to pay off her debts, when Elijah asked her, what do you have? She opened the cupboard and found a little bit of oil. When Elijah told her to pour it, it kept going, filling up all the jars she had, and she had to borrow some from neighbours. Then she could sell it and pay off her debt.

What do you have in your cupboard? When you feel a lack of something in your life, what do you already have that God is ready and waiting to miraculously grow for you? Do you have a little bit of energy? A good idea? A sense of humour? Some spare time? Too much silver beet? A particular skill?

Just like the loaves and fishes, we all have something. It might only be a little thing, but God can magnify it, and make it bless others.

Can you imagine the scene in the previously deserted wilderness? The people would have been getting hungry, and Jesus lifts up five loaves, and two small fish to God, and blesses them, and breaks them. This sounds like communion doesn’t it? Maybe the folk would have thought, oh, he’s having his tea now, but what are we going to do? But as Jesus broke the bread and fish, it seems to double, and double again, and again, so that there was not only enough for everyone there, but also 12 baskets of leftovers! Can you imagine how much food you would need for five thousand men, and more women and children? How many loaves of bread? How many fish? I have a hard enough time working out how many people I’m feeding at my place, especially in the weekends when extra teenagers seem to turn up, but here is Jesus breaking the bread and distributing it, knowing that it would be more than enough.

When we bring our small stores of whatever we have to Jesus, he will bless them too, and they will expand to fill the need. If we all bring our talents and time and resources to Jesus for the sake of the kingdom, just like we heard in last week’s Gospel about the mustard seed, they too will grow and grow, to fill the needs of those around us.

But hang on, you may say. I don’t have anything I can give to the kingdom of God. That’s when you need to ask God what is it that you do have. What’s in your cupboard? It may be something that you haven’t thought about.

I can imagine that the crowd around Jesus might have fancied something different for tea than dried fish and bread. This was a pretty basic meal, but that’s what was there. There are times when we want a certain thing, and God fills our need by providing something else. Wants and needs are different, and being flexible to God’s leading is important here. That’s why it is so important to offer them up to God in prayer. If we have an idea for a new outreach in our parish, before we go in boots and all and try to get it up and running, we need to bring it to prayer. Next weekend we are having a planning day for the vestry and clergy, and that’s exactly what we will be doing.

God will bless what needs to be blessed, and give the increase where God wants to. If we sense that our offering is not going anywhere, perhaps it’s time to come back to God and ask again. ‘Lord, what do I have in my cupboard that I have overlooked? What resource have I already rejected? Can you do something with that Lord?’

God uses things and people that the rest of the world rejects. The stone the builder rejected has become the cornerstone, the scripture goes.

Let’s take this story of the feeding of the five thousand as an encouragement to us, that whenever we are in need, we can bring whatever we have to God, ask for God’s blessing on it, and in confidence and trust expect a miracle!

Little Treasures

Sermon July 26 2020

Little treasures.

Genesis 29:15-28

Rom 8:26-39

Matthew 13:31-52

We have just heard several short pictures of what the kingdom of heaven is like. A seed, yeast, treasure, a pearl, a net.

These ideas are small but rich in content.

The first two have something in common. A seed is a tiny thing, but it grows large and gives a lot of return. Yeast too doesn’t take up much space, but it expands to make something more. If you make bread and leave out the yeast, or use some that has expired, you get a very heavy, stodgy, inedible dough. There is no lightness, no ease of eating it.

What can Jesus be telling us here about the kingdom of heaven? Well, it starts from small beginnings. It starts small with a smile, a kind word, a gesture of friendship, a prayer. Every time someone treats another person with the love that God has for all of us, the kingdom starts to grow, to bubble up a bit.

A seed and yeast need the right conditions to grow – warmth, moisture and food. If we want to see the kingdom of heaven grow around us, we too need to provide warmth – the warmth of God’s love. And moisture – the watering with the Word. That is, the reason behind what we do. Christians derive that reason from our belief in the words of God that we find in the Bible. Lastly, food – the food of fellowship, both with one another, and by sharing in Holy Communion, which is a powerful symbol of taking Jesus’ substance within us.

Today we are going to baptise little Quintin. His family, friends and all of us will come together to declare our faith in the God who made us. That is how we can re-imagine the kingdom of heaven – a seed growing in the right conditions, and it is our prayer that as Quintin grows up he will be nurtured in this environment so that the kingdom of heaven will grow in his life.

What else do our parables compare the kingdom of heaven with? A pearl, and a treasure. Notice again how they are paired, just like the seed and the yeast.

The kingdom is something precious but not obvious. It is hidden away, and gives great joy when it is found. Where do we find pearls? Inside an oyster, or a mussel, or a paua. In the middle of a sea creature, which by the way was seen as unclean in the Jewish religion. And this animal too is hidden away under water. It takes a lot to find a precious gem like a pearl, lots of hard work and looking. That says a lot about the kingdom of heaven in our day and age too – it is not obvious, breaking out all around us. There is so much distress and suffering in the world that at times we can wonder if the kingdom of heaven is just a story made up to keep us happy.

But we can trust scripture here – as Paul says in the reading that we heard earlier,

Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?

No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.’

Isn’t that powerful? Anything we can think of, that might get in the way of God’s love shining upon us, Paul has already shot down. Whatever the conditions of our world, of our life, of our circumstances, God’s love is right there in the midst of it. There is absolutely nothing that can keep God from loving us.

But, you may say, you don’t know how bad I’ve been. How could God love a person like me? We are all attacked by feelings of guilt from time to time, and we can bring them to the crucified Christ to ask for forgiveness. Be reassured that if we ask, we receive, and Jesus’ death and resurrection has taken all, let me say it again, all our guilt away. Nothing can separate us from God’s love.

Now, this isn’t a free pass to do whatever we want. As the kingdom of heaven grows in us, as the seed takes root, as the pearl starts to glimmer from the darkness, we start to see other people with the same love that we know God has for us. And how can we treat folk badly if we know that God loves them too?

This is where it starts to get difficult, because for most of us I suspect, there will be people who have mistreated us in our past, and maybe still are, or are just plain annoying. Luckily, we are not asked to sort out the bad from the good, just to love them. We are like a tap – there might be water in the pipe, but you don’t know until you turn it on. When you have been doing plumbing work, there is always that slight trepidation when you start to remove the tap handle to replace the washer – did I really turn off the toby properly? If you didn’t you know that there will be a mess! But God’s supply of love for us is never turned off. It’s not like the dripping tap that you needed to fix. When we turn it on, by letting love flow out from us, we start to notice that the flow just increases more and more. There is no limit to how much love there is.

Well, do our parables about the kingdom of heaven have anything to help us about the ones who are hard to love? The people who have wronged us, hurt us, abused us? Yes!

Remember the picture of the net:

“Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea and caught fish of every kind; when it was full, they drew it ashore, sat down, and put the good into baskets but threw out the bad. So it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous and throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’

This tells us that everyone will be caught up in the net of the kingdom of heaven. It doesn’t mean that evil people will get away with it though – they are sorted out. It’s up to God and the angels to judge who is good and who is bad. It’s not up to us. We don’t need to worry about evil doers getting away scot-free. God will judge them and sort them out in the fullness of time. That’s tremendously free-ing, not having to hold that burden of hurt, unforgivingness and resentment against others.

Let God take that burden from you, and deal with it. And let the yeast of the kingdom of heaven bubble up within you, spilling out as love.

Seeds

Sermon July 12 2020

Seeds

Romans 8:1-11 Matthew 13:1-23

Has anyone tried sprouting seeds? It used to be all the rage to have your own bean sprouts, mung beans usually, on the kitchen windowsill. It’s not hard to get a seed to germinate. You just have to give it water. Maybe a bit of light. But what is in the seed reacts as soon as it detects water, and sends out a little root tip, looking for water. The word of God is like that too. As soon as it detects even the slightest encouragement, it starts to grow. But if the seed is sown on rocky ground, all dry and hard, there is no water. No reason for the seed to start into action.

If the word of God is sown on rocky ground, that means it is somewhere very unreceptive. Do you know people who have stony hearts? Gravelly faces? Flint expressions? People who don’t listen to anything of God, or religion. Maybe they say, I don’t need all that stuff, I’m doing all right on my own. We used to have a boarder who was from Russia. He thought Christians were weak because we relied on God, and that his people were strong because they didn’t need God. He was like a rocky ground, impervious to the word of God.

In the real world, seed that lands on rocks is soon eaten up by birds and mice and anything that can use it, but it doesn’t take root.

Let’s look at what St Paul has to say to the Romans about people who have no time for God –

‘Those who think they can do it on their own, end up obsessed with measuring their own moral muscle but never get around to exercising it in real life. Obsession with self in these matters is a dead end.

Focusing on the self is the opposite of focusing on God. Anyone completely absorbed in self ignores God, ends up thinking more about self than God.’

We have seen what happens when people measure their own moral muscle, and don’t end up using it. They become judgmental and hateful, criticising everyone and loving no one except maybe their own family. These people end up rejecting those of other race, other religion, other anything really. They try to make themselves feel better by belittling everyone else.

But Paul has the remedy for this too:

‘Those who trust God’s action in them find that God’s Spirit is in them—living and breathing God! attention to God leads us out into the open, into a spacious, free life.’

If the seed is thrown onto weedy ground, full of thistles and convolvulus, it might germinate. But there is so much competition. The stronger, older plants prevent the light from reaching the newly sprouted shoot, and their roots suck up all the moisture, so the poor little shoot gets paler and weaker till it finally gives up. That is like when people hear the word of God but there are so many other things going on that it can’t be nurtured.

Do you know people like that? They are happy to hear about God, and they know you go to church and live by faith, but they just don’t have time to consider how this could be something in their lives. They don’t have the energy to weed their garden.

I used to work as a gardener to elderly people until fairly recently. Many gardens need help to flourish, or the bully weed plants take over. If you want a particular plant to thrive it needs to be tended. Maybe you can be the gardeners for your friends. People whose lives are so busy with cares can be encouraged to take some time out, some ‘me’ time, to stop doing everything else and just think

about what they are doing here on earth. About how they got here, who made them. Maybe you can help your friend find that time by minding their kids for a few hours, or sharing their busy load in some other way. Even just by taking the time to talk to them, you are giving them a little window in their busyness.

There is freedom for those who trust in God. These are the people whose gardens are tended, where the weeds are removed and the soil fed, where the water is the right amount and the plants get enough sun, and are protected from frost.

Those of us here today would want to count ourselves in this category – but the parable doesn’t just talk about the plant growing up to the light. It produces something! If you grow one kernel of corn, it might produce 3 ears of corn, each with a hundred kernels. That’s a 300 fold increase! Many seeds do this, producing so much from just one, that we can use most of the seeds for food, and sell them, and give them away, and still have enough to sow for the next year. The word of God is like this too –

As Matthew says, ‘this is the one who hears the word and understands it, who indeed bears fruit and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty.’

Have you seen God’s fruit in your lives? I know many of you have. Do you want your friends, relations, the lady in the supermarket, the man at the petrol station, to have that fruit and joy in their life too? I hope you do, because if we truly have a wonderful thing in Jesus, we really want to share it. Let’s all be gardeners in this cold month of winter – not for real plants which let’s face it aren’t doing much, but with people. Let’s sow the Good seed, let’s water it, let’s weed it, and help it flourish. Just as plants that are tended do much better than those left alone, so does the word of God in people’s hearts.

Gulp, I hear you thinking. That sounds like hard work, trying in every encounter with someone to be helping the word of God grow. Good news! Paul says:

‘If the alive-and-present God who raised Jesus from the dead moves into your life, he’ll do the same thing in you that he did in Jesus,- bring you alive to himself. When God lives and breathes in you (and he does, as surely as he did in Jesus), you are delivered from that dead life. With his Spirit living in you, your body will be as alive as Christ’s!’

Trust God to give you the Holy Spirit to empower you, and it won’t be an uphill battle.

I Obviously Need Help!

Sermon July 5 2020

Genesis 24:34-67 Romans 7:15-25 The Message Matthew 11:16-30

I Obviously Need Help!

Paul spells it out like it is, doesn’t he? It can be a bit hard to understand, so today we are using the version from The Message.

“For if I know the law but still can’t keep it, and if the power of sin within me keeps sabotaging my best intentions, I obviously need help!”

Have you had times like that? I’m sure we all have. Maybe it’s driving things – you know you should indicate that left-hand turn, but there’s no-one for miles about to see, so you don’t bother. Or maybe, like me, you find yourself taking a pen home from work, and don’t consider that it really should have been left at work. What’s the harm? There’s no-one to see or criticise, and anyway, doesn’t everyone do things like this?

Maybe you don’t see little infractions like this as sin. How about other things? As long as there have been people, there have been temptations to cheat in our relationships. No one will know, it’s ok, people have tried to convince themselves.

But Paul is talking about an innate law, one that we know is inside us. It’s not because we are scared of begin caught out that we are encouraged to follow the law, both the law of the land and God’s law. If even the saintly Paul struggled with the flesh, with temptation, with inner sin, we can be reassured that we are not the only ones who go through times like this.

But Paul leads us to what is really going on – ‘the power of sin within me keeps challenging my best intentions.’ We are born into a world of sin. When Adam took the first bite of that apple, metaphorical though it may have been, human beings were opened up to a world where we can make our own choices, even if

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they are bad ones. We do have free will. If we didn’t, God would just have made a race of robots, Barbie and Ken dolls to play with, instead of people with free will who can choose to love God and love each other.

We can choose to turn away from sin, but even Paul admits that we need help. We can’t do it under our own strength. We have a real adversary who is trying to pull us from the path, and we have the adversary of the flesh, which is also nudging us from that path.

Paul goes on:

‘I realize that I don’t have what it takes. I can will it, but I can’t do it. I decide to do good, but I don’t really do it; I decide not to do bad, but then I do it anyway. My decisions, such as they are, don’t result in actions. Something has gone wrong deep within me and gets the better of me every time.’

This sounds like New Years’ resolutions doesn’t it? How many of us have made these, bright and shining with the New Year, and by January 2 we’ve completely forgotten about them. I can already be promising myself to stop buying chocolate, while I reach for the Whittakers at the checkout.

Or how about when we see those desperate pleas from Save the Children on tv, and we decide, yes, I will support them, but by the time the add has finished we’ve forgotten what or why we even thought we might? Our decisions don’t result in actions at times, because, as Paul has said, something has gone wrong deep within me. That’s sin.

But don’t despair! Paul says:

‘I’ve tried everything and nothing helps. I’m at the end of my rope. Is there no one who can do anything for me? Isn’t that the real question?

The answer, thank God, is that Jesus Christ can and does.’

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You can feel such a sigh of relief, can’t you? After spelling out all the failings of our frail humanity, Paul takes us to the point where there is hope. That Jesus Christ can help us, and importantly does help us.

How does Jesus help us? By answering our prayers, by inspiring us with the Holy Spirit, by setting us his example, by challenging us to radically love our neighbour, even the annoying one, by being with us in other people – the list goes on. There are so many ways Jesus helps us to do what is the right thing.

We need to have the right thing set as a default in our heart in order to recognise when we are tempted to do the wrong thing.

How can we do that? By asking ourselves, what would Jesus do? This takes us back to really examining Jesus’ example – ‘gentle Jesus meek and mild ‘was a fiction designed to make little children behave themselves. How about Jesus braiding a cord and cleansing the temple ,or calling the Pharisees a brood of vipers?

Following Jesus doesn’t mean being nice and sweet all the time. Some of the time sure, but when there is injustice or hypocrisy, we have an excellent example in Jesus to try and right the injustice, to call out the hypocrisy.

Being a Christian is not always a comfortable place to be. In fact, if we are too comfortable, we are not really engaging in the world we live in.

Now, I’m aware today that many of you have been God-following Christians for many years, and have this idea of doing the right thing pretty sorted in your life. It may not be for you that these words are. But you may have other people that come to you for advice, for support, for friendship. Maybe your cleaner has a problem to discuss with you. Maybe your grandson wants to run something by you. Maybe the hairdresser opens up an interesting topic of conversation.

Dear friends, you have a job to do. There is no such thing as a retired Christian.

Whenever someone engages with you, you can guide them into Jesus’ way to

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live. People will see the wisdom and the love shining off you, and will come and ask, knowing that there’s something about you that is different from the world.

Our mission is to let the world know about God’s love for each and every one of them, and this can inform every contact we have with anyone.

Think about contact tracing, like we’ve had to consider in the Covid crisis. Many of you weren’t going out in lockdown, so didn’t come in contact with people who might infect you. But now that we’re out of lockdown, how many people can you infect? In a good way, of course, with the Good News. With the love of God.

This week, do a bit of a tally of how many people you encounter, and you might be surprised about how many opportunities there are for you to spread the Good News!

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Newness of life

Sermon June 21

Romans 6:1-11

Matthew 10:24-39

In our first reading Paul challenges the idea that being forgiven by God gives us a free pass to do whatever we like. You may have heard people say, I’m a sinner, saved by grace, and then they go on sinning. Or we have heard stories of those who went to confession once a week, repented from their sins, and then carried on in exactly the same way. That’s not God’s way. God wants us to take hold of the newness of life in Christ, the forgiveness, the setting free that happens when we trust God with our lives.

I want to draw your attention to the idea that

“The death Jesus died, he died to sin, once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God. So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.”

In our lives there may be things we regret, and things we cannot face so we block them away in our subconscious. But if we can allow God’s light to shine into these dark areas, and clean them out, we can grab hold of that forgiveness. If all sin has died with Christ, our sin has died too. Otherwise, what was the point of Jesus’ death and resurrection? Our sins were nailed to him on the cross, and his death has taken them away.

Well, you may know the scriptures, and the lines from our services like that, but do you really live it? Or do little things from your past rear their ugly heads to niggle at you and make you feel guilty from time to time? You know, the I Shoulds. I should have called her. I should have told him. I should have never gone there. We can all have regrets about the past, and want to tear that page out of the script and rewrite it, especially when people we love have been hurt. But because of the cross, we can put aside all those Shoulds. All those guilty feelings.

God doesn’t condemn us, God doesn’t want us to wallow in guilty feelings. Those accusations that creep up on us come from the enemy – the Hebrew word Satan means accuser. Trust that those sins from your past have been dealt with and don’t dwell on them. If you find yourself doing that, take it to God in prayer. Look at the cross and remind yourself that you can tell the accuser to get lost.

Turning away from this way of living can give enormous freedom, but it can come at a cost. Indeed, anyone who truly follows Christ may know that cost. In our reading from Matthew Jesus says:

34 “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.

35 For I have come to set a man against his father,
and a daughter against her mother,
and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law;
36 and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household.

This sounds awfully harsh doesn’t it? Or maybe it gives us an excuse not to get on with our mother-in-law!

It’s actually a quote from the prophet Micah, and Jesus is reminding his hearers – and Matthew’s gospel is written for the Jews – that there is a long history for their people of the terrible divisions that can occur when God is doing a new thing. We’ve seen that in our own church over the issue of same-sex marriage. There will always be people reluctant to embrace the change.

When I became a born-again Christian I told various family members in the hope that they too would join in and embrace the freedom I had found. But for the most part I was met with indifference- “I’m fine as I am thank you, and anyway, what right do you have to say that I am a sinner who needs help?” -was the gist of some of the comments.

That is what Jesus means by the divisions that can come upon our relationships when we truly go full-out for Christ.

Gosh, this is all a bit heavy isn’t it? How will we cope if even our nearest and dearest are fed up with us, and division comes into our family? Will we be alone as we cope with it? No, not at all. We can bring everything to God in prayer.

We are being encouraged to put away all feelings of not rocking the boat, to truly walk in the freedom that a life in Christ gives us. And if the rocky boat ride causes us to get soaked, or shipwrecked, or cast on unknown shores, we know that God is with us. No matter what we are experiencing God is with us. We can reach out in prayer and know we are heard.

Some preachers have told off their people for praying for silly little things like getting a car park, or a sunny day for the church picnic. But what does scripture tell us?

“Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. And even the hairs of your head are all counted. So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows.”

This should give us encouragement that we can bring whatever troubles us to God. We can ask, and God will listen. If it matters to us it matters to God. I have personal experience of praying for car parks – I used to teach singing in an inner city school in wellington, where parking was difficult. There was one side street with a few parks that were free, and whenever I prayed on the way in for one, I got one. If I was too preoccupied with other things to ask, there was no park. This went on for three years! Yes, I think praying for car parks is fine!

As well as immediate needs, no matter how seemingly small, we can also pray when those feelings of guilt or hurt or inadequacy come up from the past to haunt us. If God is happy to help us with car parks, surely it’s no problem to ask about old stuff too? But, you may argue, I already prayed about that, and gave it up to God, and I can’t seem to help myself dwelling on it.

There is no time limit to God. Praying is not like a coupon that runs out, or a voucher that has a limit on it. We can ask as long as we need to.

So embrace the freedom, the joy that comes from knowing that you are forgiven, past, present and future, and trust God to guide your every step and thought.

Three in one

Sermon June 7 2020

Genesis 1: 1-2:4a

2 Cor 13:11-13

Matt 28:16-20

It is often felt by the clergy that being on preaching for Trinity Sunday is drawing the short straw.

It’s such a complex and difficult issue, that the best advice on Facebook is, that in order to avoid theological heresy, I should avoid the topic completely and show pictures of kittens instead!

Well, today I have the privilege of drawing that short straw, and the task of unpacking what is surely one of the most complicated ideas in Christianity.

Now, many of you will have heard sermons on the Trinity for years, as I have. Many of you may be thinking, the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost, right? What’s so complicated about that?

My problem with that particular way of describing the Trinity is not that it’s too complicated. My problem is that it’s too simple.

God has so many different facets, powers and attributes that there are hundreds of names for God. Jehovah Jireh – God provides. Jehovah Rapha, – God heals. Saviour. Redeemer. The list goes on.

Let’s look at the traditional three-in-one picture of Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Now, my first problem with this as the only way of looking at the Trinity is that it’s gendered. It contains a gender for parent and for child. We cannot see Jesus as anything other than male, because he was born on earth as a man, as the son of God. He was a carpenter by trade. No problems there, he was definitely a bloke. That is, on earth. But how about after the resurrection? A famous early mystic, Julian of Norwich, describes Christ as a mother who suckles her young. The male gender of Jesus is not necessarily so important in the resurrected Christ.

How about ‘Father’ then? God as Father, male parent of the son, who came upon Mary and started Jesus growing in her womb. This makes sense in the context of Jesus’ incarnation.

But let’s look at some of the other ways we hear about God, starting with our first reading, which is the very first part of the Bible.

In the Beginning God created the heavens and the earth.

God’s very first appearance in all of scriptures is as creator. We know God as the beginning of everything, the one who set it all in place, who started the atoms moving, the proteins forming, the creatures evolving. God’s role as creator is so much greater than just Father. Father of Jesus is really important, yes, but if we look at God as creator we have so much broader a picture.

We can also avoid negative connotations of the word Father.

You may have had a lovely childhood, with a caring and gentle father. In this case the idea of God as father is reassuring and comforting. But if you had no father as you grew up, your idea of God may be of distance, unavailability, or rejection. If your father was a nightmare – cruel and violent, how can you see God as loving Father without having to do mental gymnastics ever time you hear the phrase Father God? It is very hard to unlink our own reality and experience with a word that has such a weight of imagery in Christianity.

If we see God as creator we are looking at a wider role than Father.

How about Jesus? If we are not going to say Father Son and Holy Spirit, what goes with creator?

Our NZ Prayer book has an answer for that. Creator, Redeemer and Life Giver.

Jesus is our redeemer. He was born on earth, in a male human body, with male human attributes. He has walked the path we too tread, and can share our life with us, the good and the bad. But it’s because of Why he came to earth that we can call Jesus redeemer. He came to save us from our sins, from the brokenness all around us. He came to give us freedom and hope. He came so that sin would no longer separate us from God, both what we have done, what has been done to us, and sin around us.

By seeing Jesus as redeemer therefore we enlarge the picture of Jesus as Son. We are not rejecting it, just thinking about the other facets of Jesus and his ministry.

How about Holy Spirit?

This is maybe the trickiest part of what is known as the God-Head. The Holy Spirit isn’t human-sounding like a father and a son. It’s not concrete like a creator or a redeemer. It sounds a bit like a force of nature, like wind or fire. But scripture reassures us that the Holy Spirit is indeed a person, the third person of the Trinity, and that means we can relate to it as that.

If it’s a person, is it gendered? Is it a man or a woman? Much of the imagery in the Old Testament particularly places the Holy Spirit as a female force. This doesn’t mean that it is a woman like I am a woman, in human female form. But it does allow for more female imagery to be part of our picture of God. We read that The Holy Spirit wants to nurture her people on her lap like a mother with her little children. Jesus too speaks in those nurturing terms, that he wants to gather Jerusalem under his wings like a mother hen gathers her chicks.

I like the phrase life-giver. This is how it feels when we welcome the Holy Spirit into our lives, that everything has more purpose and is more vivid. There is more joy. It’s like a flow of electricity, and the Holy Spirit has thrown the switch.

In the late 90s a book came out, called the Shack. It is a great read, and I can lend it to you. In this book, the main character meets God, and the three persons of the Trinity have a different persona from that we often see in our literature and art. Instead of God the Father being a stern old white man, with a long beard, like in the Blake painting, The Creator part of God is portrayed as a large black woman, with a generous laugh and hugging arms. Jesus the son is portrayed as a youngish man, hands scarred by working with tools, and pierced by nails. The Holy Spirit is shown as a young Asian woman, who disappears like the wind.

This is not the only way to see God obviously, but I like this picture because it challenges how we see God.

One of our shorter readings today uses a well-known formula for God:

The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with all of you.

This refers to the attributes of each person of the Trinity, but because they are all bound up together as one, like a plaited cord, they all apply to each. This is where the nature of God gets complicated. When asked where he had come from, Jesus answered, before Abraham was, I AM. Jesus’ nature is much more than human son –the Holy Spirit is there too, creating the world in the beginning.

No one role is more important than the others either – Jesus baptises the disciples in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.

God is way too big and complex for our tiny minds to grasp all the inns and outs.

The picture of the Trinity helps us to understand some of the different roles and attributes, but instead of seeing it as the only way to see God, let’s take it as a starting point to meditate on.

Ascension

Sermon May 24 2020

Acts 1:6-14

1 Peter 4:12-14

1 Peter 5:6-11

John 17 1-11

Our readings today attest to the awesome power of God, the supernatural, beyond human comprehension, incredible nature of our God. We see the picture of Jesus glorified, and ascending into heaven in a cloud! That’s not an everyday sight is it?

These are difficult times we have been going through, and we need to be reminded about how mighty God is, just how powerful and on top of this is our Lord.

This picture of Jesus too reminds us that even though Jesus is fully human, he is also fully divine, and has all the power of the God-head within him.

During Lent and Passiontide we saw the very human, frail nature of Jesus, and we knew because of this that he is well qualified to understand what our lives are like. But with Easter, when Jesus broke through his human nature to reveal the divine, and now with Ascensiontide, we can see more of His divinity.

Can you imagine what the disciples would have been thinking? They had just got used to Jesus being back with them, but somehow different. They were going about business as usual, wondering what it all meant, when he disappeared! They stood looking up, gob-smacked, and two angels – it has to be angels – said to them,

“Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”

This is reassuring that Jesus will indeed return. It means that they don’t need to keep looking up, wondering where he has gone. But it also gave them an impetus to get off the mountain and Do something. Why stand staring up in the clouds?

They knew that they could not expect Jesus to pop straight back and say, ‘oh sorry, I just had to talk to my Father in heaven for a bit. Now, where were we?’

The disciples were on their own! Help!

But then they must surely have remembered that Jesus had only just told them what would happen next.

“You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”

Oh, okay, they said to one another. We will receive power. That’s good, isn’t it. We will be okay without Jesus, the Holy Spirit will help us. Wow! They remembered what the Holy Spirit had done in the stories of their scripture. They felt humbled that they would have this wonderful Holy Spirit with them!

But hang on, Jesus said something else, didn’t he?

‘You will be my witnesses, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.’

The disciples knew that they would be telling everyone all about Jesus when the power came upon them! They didn’t have the power yet though, so it was still with some fear that they contemplated telling others. As for ‘all the ends of the earth’ ! How could they go anywhere under Roman rule? How would it even be possible?

At this point they just needed to trust the words of Jesus. They are still in a sort of limbo, in between business as usual and something wonderful. We’re a bit like that too, aren’t we? We have been in extraordinary times, but things are starting to come back to normal, except they’re not, are they? Maybe business as usual will never happen the same way again.

We, like the disciples are facing a somewhat uncertain future.

What can scripture tell us about it?

Let’s look at our reading from 1 Peter.

12 Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that is taking place among you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. 13 But rejoice insofar as you are sharing Christ’s sufferings, so that you may also be glad and shout for joy when his glory is revealed.

Wow, he could have written it for us! There have always been periods of human history when Stuff was happening, when people were under stress. We know from this reading that we can be encouraged not to lose heart.

Remember, Peter who wrote this was the same disciple who denied he even knew Jesus, just before Jesus’ death on the cross. Peter was cast so low that he wept bitterly and didn’t even know if he would be accepted as a disciple after Jesus’ resurrection. That’s why Jesus told the disciples and Peter to come. He wanted Peter to know that whatever failings he may have had he was still loved.

Now Peter is bold and forthright in proclaiming Christ Jesus, and encourages us to trust him too. We can rejoice, knowing that God is in charge.

The next verse of our reading could have been written last week!

‘Cast all your anxiety on him, because he cares for you. Discipline yourselves, keep alert. Like a roaring lion your adversary the devil prowls around, looking for someone to devour. Resist him, steadfast in your faith, for you know that your brothers and sisters in all the world are undergoing the same kinds of suffering.’

All the world is suffering at this time. It is natural to be anxious, whether staying at home or venturing out for the first time.

Peter talks about the devil, prowling around like a lion, looking for someone to devour. Perhaps we could see despair as this lion, wanting to pull us under. Resist it! Be strong because God cares for you!

We do indeed know that our brothers and sisters all around the world are suffering the same kinds of suffering. Indeed, many have it worse than us. But this reminds us that when one is hurting, all are hurting. We can resist despair for their sake, embrace the new normal and continue to pray for those who are still in the midst of the pandemic.

In our Gospel reading from John, Jesus asks for a final layer of protection for the disciples. That’s not just the guys from 2000 years ago, that’s us. Jesus has prayed for our protection, so that we can go about the work He has set for us – the work of spreading the Gospel to the ends of the earth, to nations near and far, to those closest to us, like our families, or Judah, to those we don’t even like, or Samaria. We are encouraged to do this, but before we stop and quake in our boots, wondering how on earth to do it, remember what Jesus told the disciples- ‘I am sending the Holy Spirit to you.’

Now most of us heard this reading last year and the year before, and probably for a fair few years before that, so we know about the Holy Spirit. But maybe this is a time for a reminder about God’s amazing power, and how God helps us with that same power that made the universe! This week, we are preparing for the great Feast of Pentecost, for commemorating an outpouring of the Holy Spirit throughout the world. Let’s take some time as we pray this week to ask God to show us our next steps, and to fill us again with that power.